A Question and a Warning from the Lord.

In the 4th Century, St. Augustine lamented the decline of Rome and Roman culture. Like any good citizen, he loved his country and culture. But things were falling to pieces, decadence was everywhere. He struggled to understand this and accept it. In his sorrow he wrote The City of God which contains his own observations and explanations of a time much like our own wherein a civilization was collapsing.

There is something of a cycle that empires, nations, cultures and civilizations go through. They rise, sometimes heroically in a great struggle, they thrive, but then see decadence and disorder set in as their very greatness turns to greed and then laziness. Their strength fades and an enemy easily overwhelms or simply replaces them. Is this cycle inevitable? No, there is a central and common cause of decline: they forsake God’s Laws whether known through the Natural Law or through revealed truth. Turning from the truth which alone sets them free, they turn lies and sin which enslaves and weakens.

Long before Augustine or us there were disasters that befell God’s people. A story from Second Chronicles speaks to our time and asks a focal question. Let’s consider the text and then apply it.

After the death of Jehoiada, the princes of Judah… forsook the temple of the LORD, the God of their fathers, and began to serve the sacred poles and the idols; and because of this crime of theirs, wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem. Although prophets were sent to them to convert them to the LORD, the people would not listen to their warnings. Then the Spirit of God possessed Zechariah, son of Jehoiada the priest. He took his stand above the people and said to them: “God says, ‘Why are you transgressing the LORD’s commands, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have abandoned the LORD, he has abandoned you.’”

But they conspired against him, and at the king’s order they stoned him to death in the court of the LORD’s temple.

At the turn of the year a force of Arameans came…They invaded Judah and Jerusalem,[and] though the Aramean force came with few men, the LORD surrendered a very large force into their power, because Judah had abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers. (2 Chronicles 24:17-25)

The contours of the story are clear enough; Israel abandoned the Lord and played the harlot worshiping the God’s of the Canaanites. This caused many evils such as wrath and a declining economy. Sin also weakens family ties, national unity and resolve. Hence even a small band of Arameans defeated them easily.

At a critical moment the prophet Zechariah asked them a focal question: “Why are you transgressing the LORD’s commands, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have abandoned the LORD, he has abandoned you.”

In other words, “Why are you being so foolish as to forsake the Lord and block your blessings? Call upon the Lord who you have abandoned! He is the only source of true blessing for you!”

But the people and the princes of the people thought his words hateful and stoned him to death right in the porch of the temple. So loathsome was this murder that Jesus would later single it out as especially evil and attach to it a very grave warning for the people of his time:

And so upon you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matt 23:29-36)

And this great punishment did in fact come to pass. In 70 AD. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans. Though the city has since been rebuilt, the Temple and the civilization and culture it represented has never been rebuilt. An era ended in April of 70. Zechariah’s haunting question had gone unanswered by them: ‘Why are you transgressing the LORD’s commands, so that you cannot prosper?” Their refusal to give an answer and make amends brought about the great warning: Because you have abandoned the LORD, he has abandoned you. Both Zechariah and Jesus warned different ages, but the warning now comes to us who, collectively transgress God’s Law, shed innocent blood and forsake God by both disbelief, but even more so, by marginalization.

Yes, in our own times we have marginalized God. Huge numbers of militant secularists have forsaken the worship of our true God and now give homage to the god of this age [who] has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (see 2 Cor 4:4). Hating the truth, they call the truth hateful, preferring the darkness they call the light of truth harsh. God and the Holy Faith He inspired is obnoxious to them and they demand removal of all religious imagery, speech, and influence from the public square. Many others too, even if less militant, have no place for God or faith in their life. God is simply irrelevant to them and the Faith of which He is the author is outdated and out of synch with the virtue signalers of our time.

And what has all this gotten us? Arguably, the collapse of a once great civilization. Our pillars are shaken, and things are toppling fast.

The first pillar of any civilization is a strong family where ties that bind and loyalties that last are born. Our basic unit is not the individual, it is the family. As the atom is to the physical world (with its proton, neutron and electrons) so the family is to civilization (with a father a mother and children). Split the atom and tremendous destructive forces go out that, if not reined in will lay everything waste and dangerous. Split the family as we have done and tremendous destructive forces go out that, if not reined in will lay everything waste and create situations that are downright dangerous. It is not just the divorce rate which increased sevenfold in the 20th century, it is also cohabitation, sexual misbehavior, single motherhood and now same-sex unions which have all undermined the biblical definition of marriage of one man for one woman till death do them part, bearing fruit in their children. As always, it is children who pay the price for adult misbehavior. When parents throw down the cross, the children must pick it up. This family chaos seldom produces tall growth. Most of the children who emerge from the cauldron of broken family are themselves broken, traumatized and significantly lacking in what makes for good human formation.

Due to sexual misbehavior Many children never even see the light of day. Eighty-five percent of abortions are performed on single women. Hence fornication leads to abortion and we killed over sixty million of our own children since 1973 in the U.S. This blood cries for vengeance as Jesus noted above. We are and will pay dearly for what we have done in collapsing our families and killing our own children. This is a civilization killer.

Another pillar of any civilization is a strong culture. And at the heart of any culture is a shared “cultus” or devotion to God. We are currently engaged in a foolish experiment to see if we can have a culture without a shared cultus. We cannot. While America has had numerous sectarian differences over the centuries, there was still a basic and shared Judeo-Christian, biblical worldview. The moral vision of the Scriptures, even though not lived perfectly, was a fundamental reference. Norms about marriage, sexuality, human rights and justice were drawn from this shared vision. Even as regards slavery, while the founding fathers could not end it, the abolitionist movement rooted in the churches and denominations, did end it and the Civil Rights movement also rooted in the churches fought to end segregation and discrimination. This was done by appealing to the consciences of Americans rooted in the Judeo-Christian vision.

But in recent decades we have increasingly chosen to jettison this shared view in favor of subjectivism and a vapid, divisive and argumentative diversity that cannot unite us, rather than the a fruitful diversity united in a basic moral vision and yet enriched by diverse strengths and traditions. God and religious traditions, observances and norms are rejected with growing hostility. Faith is relegated to the margins and even, at times, legally excluded from the national conversation.

This in turn has led to a third and significant problem, the rise of subjectivism and relativism. In subjectivism the locus (or place) of truth moves from the object to the subject. What a thing really is, or what is plainly going on in a situation is suppressed in favor of subjective opinion about what a thing is or what is going on. In effect we move from a shared and external source for truth to a increasingly subjective source for “truth.” It is routine to hear a reasoned argument dismissed by someone saying, “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me.” But of course, this fundamentally misunderstands what truth is. Truth is not opinion, it is a declaration, based on evidence and revelation, of what conforms to reality. What this shift from the object to the subject means is that rational discussions can no longer be had. Appealing to a shared body of presumptions supplied by both an authoritative biblical worldview and reality itself, once provided a framework for reasoning, discussions and decisions.  This, having been removed, means that those who prevail in debates or differences are those with the most power, money, influence, or just those who are the most exotic and demanding.

For these reasons and more there cannot be a culture without a shared cultus: namely, Someone (God) or something (a body of beliefs) above us all, to whom or to which we must be conformed and base our reasoning. What is left is a vacuum and a power struggle between individuals or groups who have no common basis on which to reason. And thus, a battle, the tyranny of relativism, ensues, a culture collapses and, with it, civilization.

Well enough said. Back to the Question and the warning:

Question: Why are you transgressing the LORD’s commands, so that you cannot prosper?

Warning: Because you have abandoned the LORD, he has abandoned you.

Is there a way back? Yes, but only one way:

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2 Chron 7:14)

Four Disciplines of Worthy Disciples – A Homily for the 13th Sunday of the Year


In the Gospel this Sunday, the Lord gives four important principles for a disciple. He also teaches on the concept of being worthy of Him. We tend think of being worthy as acting in a way that meets a certain standard, but the Greek word for “worthy” involves more than merely external behavior, important though that is. To be worthy of the Lord is to ascribe worth and give proper weight to who He is and what He teaches. Let’s take a look.

I.  The priority of a disciple – The text says that Jesus said to His apostles, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”

The Lord could not be clearer: we are to love Him more than we love anyone or anything else. There is to be no person or thing in our life that has greater importance than the Lord. So fundamental is the priority of our love and obedience to Him that it eclipses even the most fundamental relationships in our family. Our love and honor for our parents is very important; it is mandated by the Fourth Commandment: Honor your Father and your Mother. And yet, even it cannot overrule the most fundamental of all the commandments, the First Commandment: I am the Lord your God, You shall have no other gods before me.

Therefore, even the love and respect owed to parents and the love that parents should have for their children cannot be preferred to the love and obedience we owe to God. If a son or daughter, even while still a minor, were to hear a parent instructing him or her to disregard a clear teaching or commandment of God, the child would have to respond, “Sorry, Mom, Dad, but I love God more. I cannot obey you in this matter.”

The same is true for any other relationship. If a spouse, a sibling, a boss, or a government official were to try to compel us to act contrary to God’s truth and commands, the answer must always be the same: “I’m sorry but I cannot comply; I love God more. Even if I suffer at your hands as a result, I cannot and will not comply.”

The love of Jesus, who is Lord, supersedes every other love, respect, or honor due to others, be they persons, philosophies, nations, or political parties.

Truth be told, many Christians manifest greater allegiance to political parties, careers, and the opinions of men in general than to the Lord and His Church. Many prefer worldly thinking to what the Lord teaches. Many cave in and compromise to what others demand of them in order to ingratiate themselves to others, to gain access, or simply to preserve a false peace. Silencing the Gospel is never a recipe for true or lasting peace.

II.  The Profundity of a Disciple Jesus speaks strongly and says that such people as this are not “worthy” of me. As noted above, we tend to measure worthiness externally, by whether we live up to expectations of us. While this is proper, it overshadows the more internal dimensions that are the deeper part of being worthy.

The Greek word translated here as “worthy” is axios, and which is related to weights and scales. Most literally the word means “drawing down the scale,” and thus implies weighing as much or more than something else.

Internally, the concept of being worthy of the Lord here is that we assign a greater weightiness in our life to Him than to the passing treasures and trinkets of the world. We are to ascribe greater “worth” or “worthiness” to Him than to anything or anyone else. We take the Lord seriously. His teaching is to weigh on us and to carry a weight in our life. This internal disposition of being worthy of God produces the external behaviors that are worthy of Him.

The Lord paints a kind of picture for us to show that if we love anyone or anything more than we love him, the scales are tipped wrongly; we are not ascribing enough weight or worth to Jesus and are thus living in an unworthy way.

As we “size things up” in life and weigh the true importance of things, remember this: No person, no political party, no boss, no person at all who seeks our money, time, loyalty, or acquiescence ever died for us. None of them can ever save us, for none of them is God. If we esteem anyone or anything more than we do Him, then we are weighting His Blood and His saving love too lightly.

III. The passion of a disciple – The text says, … and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Every disciple must be willing to take up his cross; if he does so, there is ample reward. The Lord originally offered us paradise, but Adam and Eve wanted a better deal. Welcome to that better deal: Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, suffering is a reality. But suffering, by God’s gracious mercy, is also redemptive. The Lord teaches us that we must join our cross to His. Taking up the cross is a way of “losing” our life in the sense that it often diminishes our enjoyment of this earthly existence. But in dying to self and to this world, we find our true life: God and the things He offers!

It is interesting to note that we are often willing to take up crosses for worldly gain. We work hard for a paycheck or to earn a college degree. Why not then for the Lord? An old song says, “No cross, no crown.” The Lord asks of us no less than what the world demands for its trinkets. The Lord teaches that rewards far greater than worldly trinkets come with the cross He instructs us to take up. The Lord’s insistence on the need for the cross is not unreasonable, yet many of us bristle. Although we will gladly spend several years and a lot of money in order to obtain a college diploma, going to Church on Sundays or giving up some of our favorite sins is viewed as unreasonable, or just too much trouble.

In effect, the Lord demands that we take him seriously, that we give weight to His words and to His promise. If we dismiss His words lightly then we are not worthy of Him, if we do not give proper weight to His words then we do not take Him seriously. This is a bad idea because He who mercifully summons us now to His truth will one day be our judge.

Be worthy of the Lord. Give sufficient weight to what He says. Respect and obedience are the proper virtues for a disciple who accords worth (weight) to the Lord’s teaching and acts in such a manner.

IV.  The prize of a disciple – The text says, Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.

The Lord promises reward if we get our priorities and passions right, if we welcome His word and give weight to what He says and who He is!

Even now, we can enjoy the fruits of God’s Word as we listen to His prophets and see our life change. In welcoming the Word in my life, I have seen many positive changes. I am less anxious, more patient, and more loving than before. I have greater wisdom. I have seen sins and sinful attitudes reduced and graces come alive. Word and sacrament have had their effect; accepting the prophecy of the Church has given me a prophet’s reward. How about you?

Further, the Lord says that He will reward every work of mercy by us, which is in effect a small share in the cross. We pray that God will forget our sins, but it is said that God will never forget the good things we have done and will never be outdone in generosity.

The Lord does not demand the cross without pointing to its reward. The cross ushers in the crown. Do you believe this? Do you take the Lord seriously? Do you give weight to and count as worthy the Word that He speaks to you?

No Other Options: Are you a Saint or an Ain’t ??

In today’s Gospel (Thursday of the 12th Week) we come face to face with the ultimate necessity of allowing the Lord to transform us. The Lord, in the Sermon on the Mount , is offering us a whole new life and we must choose to accept it and see our life change, based on it, or we will simply be unfit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Our flesh hates these sort of “all or nothing” scenarios. We prefer things to be vague and fuzzy. We prefer a “many paths to God” scenario. But in the end our preferences do not change the reality which the Lord sets before us: we are going to spend eternity either with God or apart from him. There is heaven or there is hell. Tertium non datur (no third way is given). The Lord chooses to finish this sermon with an urgent call: Either come to know me by faith and let me transform you or be unfit to enter the reign of God. You and I must choose.

Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages.

I. The Discipleship that must be seen – The text says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. There is a strong tendency in our flesh to be intentional but not actual, and then to think that is enough. It is very easy for our flesh to make commitments but then not keep them. To be verbally supportive, but not be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be actually supportive. And too often we tell ourselves that this is enough.

But at some point we have to realize that it is not enough to mean well. We actually have to do well. Scripture says elsewhere: If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18).

To illustrate another way, if you give me directions to get to your home, I actually have to follow them to get there. I cannot, a certain intersection, say, “Well I don’t feel like turning here,” and then think I am going to arrive at your home. Likewise, I cannot be negligent in the details, just breezing through intersections and only half paying attention, and think I will arrive at the destination. I have to actually follow the directions. Vaguely following them is not enough, and explicitly ignoring or violating them will send me to the wrong end of town. Now, God has told us how to get home to heaven. Yet too often we want to think that we can carelessly navigate through life and still end up at the proper destination. Others think that they can outright disobey one or more of the directions and still get home. It just doesn’t work that way. The only way home is to obey the directions given us.

It is true that the Lord allows us U-turns and permits us, when we get lost, to make a cell phone call (repentance and confession) to clarify directions and redirect. But in the end, the critical point is, we simply have to obey. There is just no other way. Saying Jesus is Lord is not enough. He actually has to be Lord. The term “Lord” refers to one who has authority, who has ownership. And so Jesus says elsewhere: Why do you call me “Lord” and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46). The Lord wants to be clear with us: it is simply not possible to enter the kingdom of heaven unless we obey.

Our flesh wants to water this down and think that merely intending to obey, merely meaning well and having positive thoughts about God is enough, or that following some of the time, or most of the time is enough. It is not. Obedience, actually following the directions is also necessary.

Only Jesus himself perfectly obeys the Father. That is why it is necessary for us to allow Jesus to live his life in us. Only knowing the Lord and allowing him to transform us in the ways he has described in previous weeks will enable us to reach our destination. Only Jesus living in us can bring about saving obedience.

But note, this obedience has to be real. The transformation that Jesus offers us is not an abstraction. It is about a real change in our life. Merely saying I have given my life to the Lord is not salvation. The real proof that we have actually given our life over to God, not just saying we have, is to be actually experiencing the transformation he has promised. This alone can get us home.

Ok, so the Lord is being very clear with us here. Actual obedience is the only way home. There just isn’t any other way.

II. The Disclosure that is sure – The text says: Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’ There is a sure and certain Day of Judgment looming for each one of us. Scripture says elsewhere: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10). The day is fixed and it is certain when our true disposition with be disclosed. Are we true disciples or just actors? Is Jesus really our Lord or just somewhere on our list of friends? Have we really obeyed or just played fast and easy occasionally “checking off the God-box?”

But here is the key question. Do we know the Lord and does he know us? Notice how Jesus says to them, “I never knew you.” We studied before that to “know” in the Bible almost always means more than mere intellectual knowing. To “know” in biblical terms means to have deep, intimate, personal experience of the thing or person known. Notice how deeply relational knowing is, in this sense. It is one thing to know about God and something far deeper to KNOW God. And Lord invites us to this sort of relationship:

  • * That we know him and are known by him.
  • * That our relationship with him is not merely having some intellectual impression, or a command of certain fact, but rather, that we have a deep experience of him,
  • * That we be in living, conscious contact with him,
  • * That we be in a transformative relationship with him,
  • * That we become increasingly one with him.
  • * That we know him, and allow him to know us.

And thus the Lord declares here to them that he does not know them. That they have not agreed to, or permitted the knowing relationship which is at the heart of heaven, and which would have prepared them for heaven. They insist that they “know” Jesus but their description highlights a mere intellectual knowing and a kind of “using” of the Name of Jesus. They “used” his name but did not really call on His name. They knew of  him but they did not KNOW him. It is very possible for priests, religious and other religious leaders to announce Jesus but not to hear him calling them. Any Christian can fall into this trap. They love to discuss religion but do not really have true faith. They will argue for and about God, but refuse to be transformed by Him. They will consider God, but only on their own terms.

What does it mean to be known by God? In the end, the only way into heaven is to know God and be known by him. To be in a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ that is living and conscious and very real. The evidence of this relationship is not just that we say we have it, but that we are experiencing the real fruits of it. And the fruits of this relationship are what Jesus is offering to do for us and has been describing all along in the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. That we are poor in spirit, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, single-hearted, and peaceful (Mat 5:3-11)
  2. That we are salt and light (Matt 5:13-16)
  3. That we have authority over our anger and are respectful of and reconciled to our brethren (Matt 5:21-26)
  4. That we have authority over our sexuality, have pure minds and hearts, free from lust and sexual exploitation (Matt 5:27-30)
  5. That we love our spouse and family members, are faithful to our marital commitments and hold marriage in high esteem (Matt 5:31-32)
  6. That we are true to our word, faithful to our commitments and speak the truth in love (Matt 5:33-37)
  7. That we feel no need to retaliate and are generous in serving and toward the poor and needy (Matt 5:38-42)
  8. That we love our enemies and persecutors. That we develop a compassion and understanding of the troubled people we meet and want only that which is good for them (Matt 5:43-48)
  9. That we have a deep affection for the heavenly Father and a trusting relationship that drives out fear and anxiety of what others think or what may happen. (Matt 6)

To truly know the Lord Jesus and be in a knowing relationship with him is to experience this sort of transformation and more. Lip service does not yield this sort of radical transformation. Only knowing and being known by the Lord can bring forth this sort of fruit. And only this sort of transformation can make heaven possible for us. Jesus says,

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…..This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (John 15:5-10)

Thus, our obedience, the keeping of the commandments, is a chief sign that we are actually in this transformative relationship that alone can prepare us for heaven. Notice that the keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not the cause or it. It is the fruit of our relationship with Jesus, not the cause of it. It is the fruit, of the vine, not the cause of the vine. To remain in Jesus is to know him and be known by him. This alone is the way to heaven. There just isn’t any other way. And the day that will disclose our choice is looming for each of us.

III. The Designation that is Supplied – The text says, Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.

A pretty simple parable in essence. Either you are going to be among the wise in heaven or the fools in hell. Either we will listen to Christ and build on the solid rock of his teachings and thus withstand the storm that is coming, or we will foolish refuse to listen and not withstand the coming storm.

Make no mistake, the storm is coming. It will surely come for us on the day of judgment.

But it is also possible to see this parable applied to everyday life. Some people live foolishly. Perhaps it starts when they are young. They goof off in school, get bad grades, join gangs, have an arrest record before 15. Others smoke dope, drink excessively, fornicate and so forth. And before you know it their whole house is close to collapsing: no job, no income, pregnant at 15, full of STDs, addicted, going nowhere. Or divorced, remarried, divorced again, had a baby by a third woman. All their income going to alimony and child support, complicated visitation rights, and one big mess for a life, not anyone’s Father, just some baby’s daddy. Life gets complicated pretty fast when we foolishly indulge in sin! And the storms multiply and the house eventually collapses. A ruined, foolish life already experiencing hell.

But others live wisely. Perhaps as youngsters they studied hard, went to Church, obeyed their elders, learned self-control and were careful about the company they kept. And sure enough, doors opened: College, then a good job. A carefully discerned marriage to one spouse, a marriage marked by fruitfulness and fidelity. In the end their children too were a blessing. Such a life is not trouble free but it is a LOT simpler and the storms are less frequent. And when the storms do come, the house of their life does not collapse for is to set on the solid foundation of God’s teaching. He here is the life of the wise, fruitful and heavenly bound.

In the end, there’s just no other way. Either be wise: know Christ and be known by him, or be a fool. Let Christ find you. Know him and be known by him. Let him transform you and prepare you for heaven. There’s just no other way.

(Clipart credit from Echoinghope.blogspot.com)

Three Hard Sayings of the Lord That Irritate Modern Sensibilities

Hard Sayings

The Gospel for today’s Mass (Tuesday of the 12th Week of the Year) features three hard sayings of the Lord’s. They are difficult for us moderns to hear because they offend against modern sensibilities; we are easily taken aback by their abruptness. Here are the first two “offensive” sayings:

Do not give what is holy to dogs, (Mt 7:6)

or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces (Mt 7:6).

This offends against modern notion that you’re not supposed to call people ugly names. This idea, though not wrong in itself, has been applied excessively in our times. We live in thin-skinned times, times of fragile egos. People today easily offended; the merest slight is often met with the threat of a lawsuit. Even observations intended to be humorous are labeled hurtful and out-of-line. But horror of horrors, here we have Jesus calling certain (unnamed) people “dogs” and “swine”; we demand an explanation for such horrible words coming forth from the mouth of the sinless Lord Jesus!

Sophistication is needed. One of the reasons we are so easily offended today is, frankly, that we lack sophistication. We seem to have lost understanding of simile and metaphor.

Metaphors and similes are figures of speech; they achieve their effect through association, comparison, and resemblance. They can highlight hidden similarities between two different things.

A simile directly compares two different things and normally includes words such as “like,” “as,” or their equivalent. Similes are comparisons like this one: “He is as swift as a cheetah.”

Some references say that similes are just a specific subset of metaphors, while others say that metaphors cannot use the words “like” or “as.” But in either case, here is an example of a metaphor that is not a simile: “He’s a real workhorse.” Metaphors (that are not similes) are usually more effective (and subtle) than similes because the basis for comparison is often ambiguous. For example, if I were to observe someone doing something cruel I might say, “He’s a dog.” Now obviously I don’t think that he is actually a dog. Rather, I mean that he is manifesting some of the qualities of a dog. However, which quality or qualities he shares with an actual dog is left open to interpretation.

The point is that as we negotiate life, some sophistication is needed as is some appreciation for the nuances of language. We seem to have lost some of this today and therefore are easily offended.

This does not mean that no one ever intends offense; it only means that more care is necessary in interpretation. In my example, the man acting cruelly would likely take offense at my words and respond, “Hey, he called me a dog!” But again what I meant was that he is exhibiting some of the qualities of a dog. Now to what extent I meant that he is like a dog is intentionally ambiguous; it’s an invitation for him to think about how he may have surrendered some of his humanity and become more like a baser creature.

Examining what the Lord says – This sort of sophistication is necessary when examining the Lord’s “offensive” sayings. Let’s look at both of them in terms of their historical roots and in terms of the lesson being taught.

Obviously the Jewish people were not pointing out positive traits when they referred to people as dogs or swine. In the ancient world, dogs were not pets; they were wild animals that ran in packs. Pigs were unclean and something that no Jew would ever touch, let alone eat. These are strong metaphors indicating significant aversion to some aspect of the person.

Do not give what is holy to dogs. This was a Jewish saying rooted in tradition. Some of the meat that was sacrificed to God in the Temple could be eaten by humans (especially the Levites), but in no way was it ever to be thrown to dogs or other animals to eat. If it was not consumed by humans, then it was to be burned. Sanctified meat was not to be thrown to dogs because it was holy.

[Do not] throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot. In the Old Testament, pearls were an image for wisdom. Pigs only value what they can eat. If pigs were to come across pearls, they would sniff them, determine that they were not edible, and then simply trample them underfoot.

So what is being said? Sacred things, sacred matters, and participation in sacred matters should not be readily offered to those who are incapable of appreciating them. There are those who despise what we call holy. There is little that can be done in such cases except to deny them the pleasure of tearing apart or trampling underfoot what is holy. Jesus is saying that some people are like dogs, who would irreverently tear apart blessed food dedicated to God, having no concept of its holiness. Some people are like swine, who would trample underfoot anything that they could not eat or use for their pleasure.

There are also some who, though not hostile, are ignorant of sacred realities for some reason. Even if they do not intend offense, they must be instructed before being admitted to sacred rites. In the Western Rite, for example, children are not given the Holy Eucharist until they can distinguish it from ordinary food. In addition, more advanced spiritual notions such as contemplative prayer are often not appreciated unless one has been led in stages.

The Lord is thus indicating that holy things are to be shared in appropriate ways with those who are capable of appreciating them. It is usually necessary to be led into the holy; one doesn’t just walk in unprepared or unappreciative.

A third hard saying of the Lord’s destroys a notion that is, to most moderns, practically a dogma: that just about everyone is going to Heaven. It is one of the most damaging ideas in modern times because it removes the necessary sense of urgency in earnestly seeking our salvation, in staying on the narrow road that leads to salvation. In direct opposition to this destructive and presumptuous notion of practically universal salvation Jesus says,

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How small the gate and narrow the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 7:12-13).

Pay close attention to the word “few.” We need to be sober and come to the biblical understanding that our salvation must be earnestly desired and sought. God’s love for us is not lacking, but our love for Him often is. In contrast, Jesus says that “many” are on a path of indifference or outright rejection of the Kingdom, which leads to destruction.

The Kingdom of God is not some abstraction. It’s not a golf course or a playground up in the sky. The Kingdom of God is the full realization of God’s will and His plan. It includes values like justice, mercy, kindness, chastity, and love of God and neighbor. It is clear that many (to quote Jesus) live in opposition or indifference to these values, while only a few (to quote Jesus) come to appreciate and are willing to receive them into their life wholeheartedly.

Yes, this is a hard saying. Many are on the path to destruction while only a few are on the road to salvation. The Lord is telling us the truth—not in order to panic us, but to jolt us into earnestly desiring our own salvation and seeking it from Him with devotion. It is also to make us sober about the condition of others. We must stop making light of sin and indifference; we must work urgently to evangelize and to call sinners to repentance.

We need to realize that our tendency is to turn away from God. There is a great drama to our lives: we are either on one road or the other; no third way is given. It is not a popular teaching to be sure. It offends against modern sensibilities. But it is true; Jesus says it to us in love.

Ad old song says, “Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last.”

The Measure You Measure Will be Measured Back to You (As seen on T.V.)

The Gospel for today (Monday of the 12th Week) gives us an admonition that God will use attitudes we use for others as a standard in our own judgment. Consider well, right now, if being unkind, unmerciful, and unforgiving is a good strategy for your live, given that you will stand in judgment and need mercy, and forgiveness. There are many biblical texts that speak of being generous to the poor, for to do brings bountiful blessings. Or, put negatively, if we are stingy, we will come up short in our own blessings.

Consider the following verses:

Here is a promise from the Lord:

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap (Lk 6:38).

The text goes on to state a clear principle:

For the measure you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Lk 6:38).

The rule of returning proportion:

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously (2 Cor 9:6).

The Lord the admonishes us with this:

One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty (Prov 11:24).

And now a word from our sponsor (a snack manufacturer in the Philippines), illustrating well this text: Who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. You may find that the ad is “clever by half.”

Seven Teachings on Hell From St. Thomas Aquinas

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!

On the Power of One Small Prayer

Praying the rosary today I marveled once again at the Fatima prayer, which is recited at the end of each decade:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy!

I have often wondered how God reacts to a prayer like this. I am awed by the power of this simple prayer, even if said in a distracted way. God is surely pleased that we ask for the salvation of souls and that we have in mind especially those who are most in need, most lost, most wayward.

How many times have we prayed this in the rosary and what have been its effects?It is astonishing and humbling to consider this. Perhaps in Heaven we will be greeted by grateful souls who will tell us that at a certain time on a particular date God heard our prayer for lost souls and applied it to them! We, too, will come to know what a difference the prayers of others made for us.

In recent years during confessions, I often ask the penitent to offer an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” for that soul (known only to God) who is now most in need of His grace and mercy. God knows not only who is in most need of His mercy but also who is opento receiving that mercy. It is a beautiful thought to engage the battle for that soul and to consider that our prayer may be the prove to be the tipping point. God knows how to coordinate all this; we do not. But He asks us to join Him in this work and to pray for the conversion of sinners and the consolation of suffering. In so doing we engage the battle for souls, including our own.

Just a brief consideration of the value of one small prayer that reaches someone in most need of God’s mercy.

Of Hidden Manna and a Shining Stone: A Meditation on a Text From Revelation

In the Office of Readings for Corpus Christi there is an antiphon rich in meaning yet at the same time mysterious:

I will give to the one who is victorious the hidden bread and a new name (Antiphon 1 from Lauds).

It is drawn from a longer text in the Book of Revelation, in the letter to the Church at Pergamum:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it(Rev 2:17).

Let us examine the many wonderful elements of the longer text.

He who has an ear, let him hear …

Jesus used these words often in the Gospels, especially in His parables. The expression seeks to appeal to those who have a soul that wants to hear. Obviously, all humans have ears, and most of us can hear, but that does not mean we listen or are willing to listen. Many have hardened their hearts and have thus acquired an ear that is deaf to the teachings of the Lord. Jeremiah says, To whom can I give this warning? Who will listen to me? Look, their ears are closed, so they cannot hear. See, the word of the LORD has become offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it(Jeremiah 6:10). Jesus also describes many people as ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven(Mk 4:12). St. Stephen rebuked the people of his day: You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did(Acts 7:51). Therefore, with this expression, the Lord addresses Himself to those who will listen and carefully ponder, for He is about to express truths that are only heard when the soul seeks to hear and is spiritually minded.

… what the Spirit says to the churches.

This means you! Although it is Jesus who is speaking, He is speaking to John through the Holy Spirit. He is speaking to the “churches” that is to the gatherings (e.g., parishes, dioceses) of all the faithful everywhere. So, He is speaking to you.

To the one who conquers …

Who is the one who conquers? John answers this elsewhere: Who then conquers the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God(1 John 5:5). Hence, through faith we conquer and seek to be among those who have spirits able to hear what the Lord teaches.

I will give some of the hidden manna, …

The Church, in placing this antiphon prominently in the Office of Readings for Corpus Christi, clearly sets forth that the “hidden manna” is the Eucharist. Some in the past have sought to link this to the ciborium of manna that was placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the tables of the Law and staff of Aaron. Moses had said to Aaron, Take a jar and fill it with an omer of manna. Then place it before the LORD to be preserved for the generations to come(Exodus 16:33). The ancient Ark of the Covenant disappeared during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and has never been found. In this sense, it—and the vessel of manna that was within it—are hidden. This explanation fails to appreciate that the ancient Ark pointed to and is fulfilled in Christ. The old Ark was said to carry the presence of the Lord in Israel, but Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant, carrying in her womb and later her arms the very presence of God in Israel, our Lord Jesus Christ. The staff of Aaron the High Priest points to the true shepherd’s staff of our Lord. The stone tablets containing the Law point to Christ, the Word made Flesh, the perfection of God’s truth, and the fulfillment of His Law. The small jar of manna points to Christ, who is the true living bread come down from Heaven, who now dwells with us truly in His eucharistic presence in the ciboria within our tabernacles. Christ Himself said that the manna in the desert pointed to Him and that He is a perfect manna:

So [the crowd] asked Him, “What sign then will You perform, so that we may see it and believe You? What will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “give us this bread at all times.” Jesus answered, “I am the bread of life. … Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And this bread, which I will give for the life of the world, is My flesh”(John 6:31ff).

Just as the ancient manna sustained the ancient Jews in their journey through the desert, so now Christ, our true and perfect manna, sustains us on our journey through the desert of this world to the Promised Land of Heaven.

Why is this manna, who is Christ, called hidden? It is “hidden because its truth is accessed and seen only through faith. To the worldly, the Eucharist seems nothing more than a wafer and some wine, but to the faithful, Christ is seen, whole and entire. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote,

I adore you devoutly, Godhead unseen, who truly lies hidden under these sacramental forms…. Sight, taste, and touch all fail, but only the hearing is safely believed; I believe whatever the Son of God has said, and nothing can be truer that the word of Truth Himself …. Jesus I look on your veiled presence and I pray that what I so ardently long for may come to pass, and that I may see your face unveiled and be happy in the vision of your glory(selected verses from Adoro Te Devote).

So, this hidden manna, Christ Himself, is given to us! Though hidden to earthly eyes, His true presence is grasped through faith.

… and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.

The most likely historical reference here is to the ancient practice of issuing admission stones, sometimes called tessera hospitalis(hospitality stones) that functioned much like admission tickets do today. A hospitality stone was a small stone with some markings on it, which gave to its possessor admission to an event or gave him a claim of hospitality from the one who had given it. That it is called white is a reference more to its brightness than its color. The Greek word is λευκός (leukos), which means lightsome, bright, shining, or dazzling. One might think of a shining pearl or diamond.

There is a theory among some scholars that the glistening stone may also be akin to the Urim and Thummim, white and black stones worn by the high priest behind the square breastplate. The breastplate of the high priest was square and had twelve jewels (see depiction above). On each of these jewels was written the name of one of the tribes of Israel. The mysteries surrounding Urim and Thummim stones are many but seem associated with blessing or curse and with determining outcomes or seeking God’s will. The Urim may have been a diamond, as no diamond appears on the front of the breastplate. It is said that on it a name was written and only the high priest knew what this secret, unutterable name was. Most think it must have been the name Yahweh, the ineffable Name of God.

But what is this “new” name spoken of in this text? Many suggest that it is some special or hidden name that God has for us who bear the stone. However, the text does not say that the name pertains to us and, if the historical reference to the Urim has any hold, the name likely refers to the Lord. Further, Revelation 3:12 says of those who overcome this world: “I will write upon him the name of my God…I will write upon him my new name.”So, it is not likely a new name by which to call us, but rather the Name of the Lord God.

How is the name new? In one sense it could be that we understand God’s holy Name in a new manner, but contextually, “my new name,” seems to refer to Jesus, and Jesus is Lord! Of this Name, the Book of Revelation is full:

    • He has eyes like blazing fire, and many royal crowns on His head. He has a name written on Him that only He Himself knows(Revelation 19:12).
    • And He has a name written on His robe and on His thigh: King of kings and Lord of lords(Revelation 19:16).
    • And they shall see his face and his name shall be on their foreheads(Rev 22:4).

Only the Lord fully knows His name, for in the ancient world a name pointed to the deep mystery of a person. We are privileged to receive the Name of Jesus as members of His Body. The text speaks to us in hope that as we are more fully immersed in Christ as a member of His Body we shall come to know ever more deeply the glory of the Name of Jesus and understand that there is no other name given to us by which we can be saved. There is power and deliverance in the Name of Jesus, and He shares this name with us, bestowing on us Himself, the Hidden Manna, the stone glistening with His beauty, glory, and clarity. Blessed be the Name of Jesus!

Such a rich meaning in such a brief antiphon from Corpus Christi!

I will give to the one who is victorious the hidden bread and a new name(Antiphon 1 from Lauds).